Norms and Productive Coordination

In my previous post I wrote about wasteful competition that occurs between animals within the same species, including us humans. To try to be impressive, we do a lot of things that are relatively wasteful. We might spend hours and hours focusing on developing a single skill, some animals will spend lots of time building an impressive dwelling, and some animals grow brightly colored plumage that puts them at risk of being seen by prey and requires energy to maintain. All of these examples are things that are done to impress others, attract a mate, and pass along our genes.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wrote about this phenomenon in The Elephant in the Brain, and they also wrote about a phenomenon that goes in the other direction, productive coordination. The authors write, “humans are different. Unlike the rest of nature, we can sometimes see ahead and coordinate to avoid unnecessary competition. This is one of our species’ super powers – that we’re occasionally able to turn wasteful competition into productive cooperation.”

 

The method that we follow to get to productive cooperation the authors call norms. We are all familiar with norms and know what they are, even if we don’t recognize most of the norms around us and can’t perfectly define what norms are. Rules are the laws, guidelines, and standards that we follow in our day to day lives. Some are written down and formalized. Some have strict and explicit penalties if violated, and some are unwritten, a bit fuzzy, and sometimes don’t include obvious consequences when violated.

 

I find norms interesting in the context of Simler and Hanson’s book because they show the ways we get to well functioning societies with fewer costly and wasteful externalities from our signaling and self-interested behaviors. Norms create a way for us to compete with each other without having to go to war with every person who might have a higher status, greater wealth, or more social and political power than we have. Many norms help all of us, as a group, function a bit better together even if they get in the way of our individual self-interest from time to time. In many ways, norms are what create the elephant in the brain.

 

The idea that our self-interest is constantly at work, hiding in plain sight and influencing our behavior while being consciously ignored comes about because of norms. We have many unwritten rules against openly bragging about ourselves and against openly disregarding others in the pursuit of our self-interest. If we did not have norms that made us feel guilty, that caused people to look down upon us, and that isolated us socially when we bulldozed our way toward the things we wanted, then we would have no reason to hide our self-interested motives and we would openly and directly compete for the things we want. Norms shape our lives by defining acceptable behaviors, and they limit our direct pursuit of our self-interest to cut out some wasteful and damaging behaviors while pushing us to be more cooperative and peaceful.

The Price of Friendship

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggests that our self-interest drives a lot more of our behavior than we would like to admit. No matter what we are doing or what we are up to, part of our brain is active in looking at how we can maximize the world in our own interest. It isn’t always pretty, but it is constantly happening and if we are not aware of it or choose not to believe that we are driven by self-interest, we will continually be frustrated by the world and confused by our actions and the actions of others.

 

Friendship is one of the areas where Hanson and Simler find our self-interest acting in a way we would rather not think about. When we learn new things, build up skills, and gain new social connections, we make ourselves a better potential friend for other people. The more friends and allies we have, the more likely we will gain some sort of social assistance that will eventually help us in a self-interested way. This part of us likely originated when we lived in small political tribes with only a handful of potential mates. In order for our ancestors to be selected, they had to show they had something valuable to offer the tribe, and they had to be in high enough regard socially to be an acceptable mate. Simler and Hanson ask what happens if we look at friendships through a zero-sum lens, as our minds tend to do, where we rank everyone we interact with and apply some type of value to each person’s time and friendship. They write,

 

“Everyone, with an eye toward raising their price [Blog Author’s Note: meaning the value of their friendship], strives to make themselves more attractive as a friend or associate–by learning new skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing their charms.
Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.”

 

The author’s suggest that friendship is as much a selfish phenomenon as it can be an altruistic and genuine kind social phenomenon. We constantly try to raise our own status, so that we can count as (at least) allies and equals among people who are well connected, have resources, and can help us find additional allies or potential mates. We always want to be one step ahead in the social hierarchy, and as a result, when someone else’s status rises relative to us, even if we stay at the same level, we feel that our status is less impressive relative to them and we feel a bit jealous. All of this paints a complex picture of our interactions and shows that we can never turn off our own self-interest, even when we are participating in ways that can seem as if they are about more than just ourselves. All the things we do to improve ourselves and world are ultimately a bit self-serving in helping us have some type of future advantage or some type of advantage that helps us pass our genes along.

Press Secretaries

I have written in the past about the idea and model that our brains act as press secretaries, taking the information that comes into the mind and presenting it in a way that makes everything happening in the mind look as good as it possibly can. This idea comes back in Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain where the authors expand on the idea. They write,

 

“Above all, it’s the job of our brain’s Press Secretary to avoid acknowledging our darker motives – to tiptoe around the elephant in the brain. Just as a president’s press secretary should never acknowledge that the president is pursuing a policy in order to get reelected or to appease his financial backers, our brain’s Press Secretary will be reluctant to admit that we’re doing things for purely personal gain, especially when that gain may come at the expense of others. To the extent that we have such motives, the Press Secretary would be wise to remain strategically ignorant of them.”

 

I really like the way that the authors describe the role of the conscious part of our brains as acting as a press secretary. By keeping us consciously unaware of our motivations for action, we can be strategically ignorant of why we do what we do. Strategic ignorance is common when we pretend that the things we do don’t have external consequences for others, when we don’t want to face the reality of science, or when we just want to avoid doing some unappealing task. In most cases we probably recognize that we are not fooling anyone when we claim we don’t know what’s really happening, but at least it gives us a slight cushion to be comfortable while hoping that the negative consequences don’t come back to bite us.

 

Hanson and Simler continue the metaphor, “What’s more – and this is where things might start to gt uncomfortable-there’s a very real sense in which we are the Press Secretaries within our minds. In other words, the parts of the mind that we identify with, the parts we think of as our conscious selves…” It is easy to ignore the parts of ourselves that don’t align with the story we want to tell and present to the world about what great people we are. It turns out it is so easy because we are not consciously aware of those parts of ourselves. We are just the press secretary who is handed the script about all the great things happening within us.  We purposefully avoid those parts of us that look bad, because we don’t want to acknowledge they are there and have to explain ourselves in spite of those negative aspects of who we are. By simply ignoring those parts of us and sticking to the happy script, we can look great and feel great about the wonderful things we do, even if those wonderful things don’t measure up to the sanitized version we present to the world. There is a lot taking place behind the scenes, but lucky for us, we are just the front facing conscious press secretary who doesn’t see any of it.

How to Describe a Norm

What inputs drive what types of behaviors in humans? This is a question I think about at an incredibly basic level all the time, but that I don’t really hear much insightful discussion about in general. We all like to believe we (and everyone else) is in complete conscious control of our thoughts, minds, and decisions all the time, but we know that can’t be true. If you leave someone in a room with a plate of freshly baked cookies in front of them, they will almost invariably eat a cookie, even if they had woken up that day determined not to eat any cookies. If you deprive someone of sleep for a whole day while they travel across the country from Seattle to Orlando with multiple layovers and tired and cranky kids, you are bound to hear a few exasperated yells, even if that person was determined not to yell at their children (or anyone else). At  a certain point, the inputs that make their way into our mind have a big influence on the resulting behaviors that we see in the world.

 

Norms are one way that we establish certain inputs associated with certain behaviors. They help us regulate what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and desired. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The essence of a norm then, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punish and what form the punishment takes.” Norms are guidelines for nudging behaviors by changing the inputs into the minds of individuals.

 

We can applaud, ignore, or punish a behavior to change the likelihood of an action taking place again. If I send out a tweet with terrible insults, and that tweet is re-tweeted and I receive encouragement for speaking out against the people I insulted, I am receiving cues that suggest I should do more of that. If however, I see an old lady walking to the register at the grocery store, and I use my youthful speed to quickly jump in front of her, I am likely to receive angry looks and possibly be forced out of line if a big enough person sees me jump ahead of the little old lady. If the punishment in this situation is embarrassing enough, I likely won’t repeat this behavior the next time I am at the store.

 

Our minds and, consequently it seems, our brains are changed by the norms we use. What is possible in our wold is shaped by how we know other people will respond to what we do. The agency we feel when we think about the world is constrained by the thoughts, looks, and actions of other people. We rarely talk about all the inputs that may change our thinking and decision-making, but it is clear that we operate in a space where many physical and non-physical things can shape what we do, believe, and think. The mind absorbs many inputs and we are not always at liberty to decide how we will respond to those inputs if we are constrained or encouraged by specific norms.

Performances on Social Media

Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy helped me to better understand and recognize moments when I was allowing my ego to drive my behaviors and decision making. So much of our desires and motivations we hide from ourselves in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about who we are and what we do. We pursue things that give us rewards and social recognition, but we tell ourselves that is not why we are doing such things. One area where this is obvious is in our social media habits.

 

Regarding social media and ego, Holiday writes,
    “Blank spaces, begging to be filled in with thoughts, with photos, with stories. With what we’re going to do, with what things should or could be like, what we hope will happen. Technology, asking you, prodding you, soliciting talk.
    Almost Universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more “let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.” Its rarely the truth: “I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know.”

 

We tell ourselves that we use social media to keep up with friends and family. To know what loved ones and close acquaintances are up to. And we post to let them know what is going on in our lives and to share fun and interesting details about what we are up to.

 

But what Holiday has recognized and addresses in the passage above (something we all have seen and know in our hearts), is that we are really just posting on social media to look good and to get rewards from people liking our posts and telling us that we are doing something impressive or good. People often refer to Facebook as Bragbook and are good at catching other people behaving in an attention seeking way on social media, but are not always good at recognizing this in themselves. It is helpful to recognize exactly how we are using social media and to try to adjust our behavior in a more honest way. Rather than asking ourselves what will get the most positive social recognition we can at least ask if what we are posting is truly for us and to keep our friends in the loop with something we want people to know about, or if we are simply trying to seek sympathy, congratulations, or to incite envy in other people. Everything we post is a signal of one sort or another, and everything we do on social media is to some degree a performance. We have the choice of making that performance an ego boosting yet hollow ostentatious display, or a more honest and real snapshot of our lives.

Building Habits

In my last post, I described the ways in which much of our life happens on auto-pilot in habitual decisions and actions that often don’t register with our conscious mind. Not everything we do needs to be a conscious action (think about how tired your brain would become if you had to focus on every step you took and how annoyed you would be if you had to think about every blink), but becoming more aware of our unconscious decisions is incredibly valuable for making changes in life. Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the ways we can actually change our habits in his book The Coaching Habit and he identifies five specific components to changing behavior. He writes, “To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.”

 

If we think about our habitual actions that we barely notice, we can see that we will never actually change those habits if we don’t first build self-awareness around our actions and behaviors. It is not enough to just think to ourselves that we want to write more, exercise more, or have a more tidy home. We have to actually recognize what habits are shaping the end state that we want to change. We have to have awareness of a problem, issue, or what could be different, and then we have to dive deeper to understand what it is that causes to the thing we want to change. It all begins and is shaped by a self-awareness that is like pancake batter poured in a single spot. You focus on one thing but your awareness and recognition slowly spreads outward around that one thing.

 

Changing a habitual action requires a reason to change. You may recognize that your house is messy and that it stresses you out. From there you have to recognize something that leads you into the original habit that you want to change. Do you automatically roll out of bed and grab your phone as a flashlight and then find yourself checking emails or Facebook for 30 minutes instead of making your coffee? What can you do to prevent yourself from grabbing your phone? For me, purchasing a flashlight allows me to leave my phone in another room, helping me keep away from habitual morning distraction. This solution is somewhere between a micro-habit and an environmental modification to try to replace the trigger (my phone) that lads to the habit I want to avoid (wasting time online). An important step toward change might be small and may not even seem related to your original habit, but can still shape your behavior in a powerful way. Thinking through these changes and building this awareness is what allows you to create a plan to actually make the changes you want to make.

 

This is a very quick and simplified version of changing a habit, but throughout, you can see the importance of self-awareness in making changes in your life. Habits stick because they go unnoticed. We don’t recognize what it is that drives our unconscious habitual decisions, so we end up with the same habits shaping our same behaviors and actions. We must be aware enough to recognize the change we want, what leads to the behaviors we want to avoid, and think through our actions to plan ahead.

Self-Reflection and Seeing Your Place in the World

When we think of ourselves and who we are as people, we can easily fall into a trap where the best parts of who we are standout and shine, while the worst parts of ourselves are hidden in the shadows where we are not able to recognize them. We are rational beings, and we are so good at being rational that we can explain away almost anything. Our bad behaviors are never just our own bad behaviors but they are a result of someone else’s bad behaviors in the first place, and our bad habits really are not habits and they really are not that bad, and our lack of initiative on that thing we tell everyone we are working on is due to how hard we work on everything else and how busy we are. In the end, we paint a picture of ourselves in our mind that makes us really awesome. Our decisions are motivated by all the right reasons and we are on the correct side of any given political debate, parental decision, and freeway driving style.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats grew up constantly questioning and challenging this instinctual way of thinking. In my last post I described his mother’s method of punishment when he got in trouble as a school child. His mother would make him sit down and write about his poor behavior and answer questions about why he was disrespectful, why his behavior was frowned upon by his teachers and by society, and why he thought it was ok for him to do the things that got him in trouble. He explains that all this writing did little to change his actual behavior as a child, but it gave him a unique skillset, the ability to look at the world, ask why it was the way it was and why people acted the way they did, and to then turn inward and ask if he himself acted the way that others did, and why he acted as he did. His mother built a sense of self-awareness in him that shaped his life and the way he understood the world.

 

What Coats found when he became more reflective of himself was a world that was not as innocent as many have believed growing up. Each time he got in trouble he was forced to recognize that he was not the perfect person that he wanted to see in the mirror. He was forced to acknowledge his shortcomings and negative instincts, and he began to make connections from himself and his behaviors to other people. About his reflective writing Coats writes, “Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?”

 

We all act in ways that best serve ourselves, or ways that we think will best serve ourselves and our tribe. We shape the stories we tell about the nature of the universe to align with the lifestyle, the privileges, and the opportunities we have. This is part of our human nature, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. When left unchecked, this part of us does not always lead to perfect outcomes for everyone. Our impulses may lead to tribal decisions that reflect discriminatory biases and our habits may disempower other people. If we cannot build a practice of self-reflection in our own lives, then we end up searching out and defending our decisions with information that is comforting to us, but not connected with the reality of our actions and the reality of the world that other people live within. Coats began to question the world around him because he understood his impulses and his own thoughts and behaviors. He understood why he got in trouble, and began to see that other people were not just the perfect individuals they presented as, but dealt with the same impulses and the same dark side that he dealt with. From this perspective, Coats could ask new questions of himself, his society, and how everyone built a shared understanding of who they were and where they came from.

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.